‘Scandal’ Season 4 Episode 2 Recap: “The State of the Union”

Has Scandal lost its mojo? As unfair as it would be to make that call only two episodes into the show’s fourth season, last night’s episode worried me. After a refreshingly restrained premiere that reset the story without entirely rebooting it, “The State of the Union” found the White House preparing for Fitz’s big speech — and writer Heather Mitchell struggling to inject any sort of suspense or interpersonal drama into a show that made its reputation by going batshit crazy with those things.

On the surface, “The State of the Union” features all the elements of a Scandal episode. We get our Clients of the Week, in the form of “hero couple” Lisa and James Elliott. He was a POW and she was a teacher who wound up in a wheelchair after saving students’ lives in a school shooting. Now, they’re both famous, martyred assholes who hate each other. Because Cyrus has wasted no time blackmailing her into being the White House’s own personal fixer again, it’s Liv’s job to get them to Fitz’s SOTU address, where they’ll serve as living proof that it’s time for the Republicans to reach across the aisle on gun control.

Of course, Olivia succeeds with the Elliotts — though not before Lisa stabs James with a corkscrew — because they’re Clients of the Week. (Although Cy’s remark, “I am never concerned that Olivia Pope will fail,” makes me wonder how much attention he’s been paying to her over the past few years.) She promises to help them get a divorce without damaging their public profile, as long as they spend one more hour pretending for the sake of sensible firearms policy to love and comfort each other. It’s all a bit too easy, with no shocking twist, and Scandal never manages to make us care about a couple whose story could well have been heartbreaking.

But the real problem is with the ongoing storylines: Portia di Rossi’s RNC chair, nicknamed “Lizzie Bear” by Cyrus, is having a conniption over Fitz’s swing to the left. The cold war between Quinn and Huck, who really do love each other in a quite disgusting way, rages on. So does David Rosen’s Attorney General confirmation process. Jake is starting to bug David about Harrison’s death. Tensions simmer between Olivia and Abby, who became White House Press Secretary after James was killed and Liv bought two tickets to paradise. Mellie is so distraught about Little Jerry’s death that she’s spending her time on a secluded veranda in a pair of UGGs, eating obscenely large platters of chicken. And then there’s the Fitz-Liv-Jake love triangle.

So far in Season 4, none of these plots have much emotional resonance. The Quinn and Huck stuff has never transcended its basic repulsiveness; the David stuff and the Abby stuff is just boring. The addition of Di Rossi’s character is clearly an attempt to camp it up (that hair!), giving Cy a brand-new female nemesis. But when she sends a “sex worker” (thanks for teaching America the correct terminology, Scandal) to spy on him, it’s an insult both to his character and the show’s loyal audience. Everyone saw that twist coming a mile down the Beltway.

In theory, I like that Shonda and co. are stretching out the Fitzlivia reunion. Last week we got a single passing glance; this week we got a scene in which Liv urged Fitz to go off-script for the SOTU and talk about his family’s grief — a scene that lost all potential power in being edited into bite-size pieces and rendered, pointlessly, as a half-hour-ago flashback. And I love seeing Olivia and Jake work out their issues. The business with the hotel room and Jake rejecting his role as “kept man” who Liv “summons” paid off somewhat sexily in the show’s final moments, where she shut him up with her nudity. But, as much as I’m Team Jake, Fitz’s absence from the love triangle does seem to rob of its pathos.

Mellie’s story is the one that comes closest to succeeding, and there’s still no greater pleasure than watching Bellamy Young throw down a Lady Macbeth monologue. Even if her conversation with Cy, in which he reminds us that he’s still “undone” by James’ death, rings a bit hollow, the moment at the end of “The State of the Union,” where she rips off her pearls and collapses, is just breathtaking. And yet, something nags at me: After all she’s been through, Little Jerry’s death is the thing that destroys Mellie? Even though she and Fitz barely seemed to realize their children existed throughout the show’s first few seasons? It’s not an entirely unbelievable pivot, but as far as I know, it’s never actually been explained.

I’m not giving up on Scandal yet. Obviously. Perhaps “The State of the Union” title refers to more than just the speech, and last night’s episode was just more scene-setting for the riveting season ahead. My fingers are crossed that things will finally get moving next week, whether it’s Mellie or the love triangle or B-613 and/or the perennially melodramatic Pope family.